How do we define ‘value’ in higher education?

by Professor Anna Vignoles FBA

4 Mar 2020

A question that has been increasingly asked in recent years is whether universities provide good ‘value’ for students, particularly since the increase in fees to £9,000 in 2012. Yet there is a lack of clarity about what we mean by ‘value’, and little recognition that it means different things to different people.

One meaning of ‘value’ relates to economic value. From the perspective of those paying for higher education (HE), namely the state and graduates, there is concern about whether a degree offers a pathway to labour market success. There is much criticism of ‘low value’ degrees that do not appear to lead to good jobs nor higher earnings. This criticism is not new. Whilst recent data on graduate earnings, namely the Longitudinal Education Outcomes data (LEO), has increased focus on this issue, talk of ‘Mickey Mouse’ degrees that require little effort and do little for students in the labour market dates back to the 1990s. Since participation in HE expanded in the 1990s (and is now approaching half the cohort), there has been debate about whether this has reduced the quality and economic value of a degree.

Colourful photograph of the library showing two levels, the ground floor with blurry figures walking around and the upper floor overlooking it through a glass wall, where a young woman with a bright yellow shirt is sitting down and reading a book on the ground. The upper floor is filled with colourful bookshelves.
Students in the Weston Library, University of Oxford. Architect: Wilkinson Eyre, 2015. Photo by James Brittain / View Pictures / Universal Images Group via Getty Images

So what does LEO actually say about the economic value of a degree? Even early on in a graduate’s career, their earnings outstrip non-graduate earnings. For women, a degree is particularly economically valuable: female graduates earn 28% more than female non graduates by age 29. For men the earnings premium is 8%. Recent work also suggests that graduates’ earnings grow more rapidly than non-graduates’, increasing the premium from a degree into middle age. These are averages and not all degrees are equally economically valuable. Some courses, like economics, lead to very high earnings. By contrast, graduates from some subjects and institutions earn no premium at all. Where and what you study makes a great deal of difference. Policymakers and students are particularly concerned about the significant number of courses that lead to earnings below the national average for non-graduates. How worried about this should we, as prospective students, parents, educators and policymakers, be?

Perhaps not as worried as we seem to be. This brings me to the other meanings of the word ‘value’. LEO does not inform us about other valuable outcomes from HE, which include the intellectual gains and the impact of a degree on understanding of, and engagement with, culture and societal issues. Even in narrow job terms, it doesn’t tell us about the quality of jobs undertaken by graduates. There is a pressing need to demonstrate the impact of HE on a far broader range of outcomes, precisely to counter the view that a degree is simply about getting a good job. We cannot just argue that HE has broad benefits and hence earnings are not the only indicator of ‘value’, we need to demonstrate it.

There is also the ‘place’ issue. In some parts of the country good jobs are scarce and earnings low. The levelling-up agenda speaks of regeneration and to do that we need high skilled people to remain or come to work in these areas. They will earn less. We cannot encourage universities to only take students who are nationally mobile and head off to the South East. Universities are also vital local routes for social mobility. We want universities, especially research-intensive institutions, to recruit local students who may well not be mobile. Yes, they may earn less, but they will keep valuable skills in the region.

We cannot just argue that higher education has broad benefits and hence earnings are not the only indicator of ‘value’, we need to demonstrate it.

There is also the sector issue. Public sector graduate jobs tend to be relatively worse paid than those in the private sector. Yet they are vital. Jobs in the creative sector are often low paid but highly satisfying and enjoyable for the graduates who do them, as well as making a cultural contribution. Again this comes back to our notion of ‘value’. We should not view universities that produce graduates who head off to these important jobs, such as nurse, teacher, artist and musician, as providing poor value.

That said, there is much institutions might do (and some are doing) to boost the employability of their students irrespective of degree subject. Students who are the first in their family to go to university and those from lower income households are more likely to take degrees which lead to lower earnings. This is therefore a social justice issue. Although we need to say loudly that graduate earnings do not convey the full value of HE, we also need to take such data seriously – it is not irrelevant to the debate about the value of universities.

Silhouetted Sussex University students celebrate their graduation at the Bandstand on Brighton Beach, July 2019. Photo by Stephen Bardens / Getty Images
Sussex University students celebrate their graduation at the Bandstand on Brighton Beach, July 2019. Photo by Stephen Bardens / Getty Images

If earnings are just one indicator of the ‘value’ of higher education, how else should universities be judged? What should be included in the regulatory Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF) to give a rounded view? We want to avoid poor metrics that are misleading and tick-box metrics that do nothing to support improvements in the quality of provision. Some would argue that we should give up on the TEF altogether, as it is too difficult to judge the value of HE on a crude basket of metrics. Yet opting for no metrics at all has huge potential risks for HE, however tempting it might appear. To protect students and ensure value for money for the state, some kind of regulation is inevitable and there are regulatory regimes that might be far more burdensome.

No metric is useful by itself, whether that be student satisfaction or graduate earnings. A basket of measures, with commentary on the specific circumstances of each institution, makes for a more holistic judgement of ‘value’. This is the intention behind the TEF, despite its flaws. TEF, far from giving an incentive to target a particular metric, encourages institutions to look more broadly at quality. We need to avoid the situation that arose in the school sector,  when schools were incentivised to target a single metric, namely the proportion getting 5 A*-C GCSE grades, and the tendency that this had to encourage teachers to pay less attention to very low achieving pupils, who were going to miss the target regardless, and very high achieving pupils, who were always going to succeed in getting over the threshold.

TEF has limitations. Despite the name, it doesn’t measure teaching quality. Further, students choose courses not institutions and TEF is an institution-level exercise. Despite these problems, the TEF principle of judging value with a range of metrics is a good one. Declaring an interest, as I was an advisor to Dame Shirley Pearce’s 2019 review of TEF, I would say that a lot of of hard thinking has gone into considering whether the basket of metrics we have in the TEF at the moment is the right one and how it might be improved more generally. Her review was submitted to the Secretary of State in summer 2019 and by law has to be laid before Parliament. In my view her review deserves serious consideration.

Lastly, for those arguing to scrap the use of LEO data and the TEF, whilst it may appear consistent with the government agenda to reduce bureaucracy in HE, I would urge universities to be careful what you wish for. Alternative regulatory regimes can be more burdensome and reduce institutional autonomy further. OFSTED is one example that ostensibly relies less on metrics and more on inspector judgement. Its impact on school quality remains unproven, but undoubtedly the burden of OFSTED, particularly in teacher/leader time, is far greater than the TEF. The long-term consequences on the status of the teaching profession, attrition from teaching and professional autonomy is not proven. However, there is no doubt that OFSTED is cited as a significant cause of additional workload, which is implicated in the retention crisis facing teaching.

As a sector, I would urge that we propose constructive and less burdensome alternatives before dismissing TEF altogether and in doing so, remember that value needs to be thought of in terms of value to the state as well as the individual graduate. Value has different interpretations for different people and institutions and whilst financial value is important, it is not the only way to assess and measure the quality of UK HE.

Anna Vignoles is Professor of Education at the University of Cambridge. She was elected a Fellow of the British Academy in 2017 and made a CBE in 2019.  

Fellows of the British Academy are elected on the basis of outstanding scholarship in any branch of the humanities and social sciences. The views expressed by our authors on the British Academy blog are not necessarily endorsed by the Academy but are commended as contributing to public debate.


Sign up to our email newsletters